Sunday, January 1, 2017

Ignoring the full weight of life

There's a cognitive blinder, found both in everyday life and in academic work, which needs to be combatted. I'll call the actual 'instantiation' of a cognitive blinder a 'fallacy'. I mean no disrespect by this term: a 'fallacy' is just a cognitive construction which is relying heavily on an innate blinder. We address fallacies, in a sense, by becoming aware of them -- in the same way that we try to recognize other innate human perceptual or cognitive phenomena, such as optical illusions.

Let me describe two of these fallacies, which I encounter often.

The first I'll call the "future shock" fallacy. This is the idea that "humankind is experiencing accelerating change", which is among the presumptions and conclusions of the well-intentioned book Future Shock. The book is actually a good example of how humans can come to reasonable conclusions about complex topics even when their purported premises are socially biased and unsupportable. 

You could read a version of the "future shock" fallacy in almost any era which has provided literature. No matter what the actual seriousness of the problems on Earth, things always appear to be moving too fast. People who were previously comfortable become alarmed at change, and write books about how abnormal the rate-of-change is. If the change is positive for others, those people will say that change hasn't come fast enough.

Clearly the 'shock' that most people in the world are experiencing at any given time has very little to do with technological progress or demographic change, as the book proposed. Shock has much more to do with how people are being treated by governments, institutions, corporations, and each other. There are many other factors of course -- weather, disaster, novelty, loss. But, let's pose a clear example: the invasion of Iraq caused vastly more global and individual shock than any silly or harmful technologies that emerged from the tech sector, as the book proposed. And the shock of being invaded has always been the same. It's the invading we need to stop -- or the lobbying, the privilege accumulation, the elitism, the bullying, the threatening, etc. -- this is not about technological 'rate-of-change'. We need to be aware that the seriousness of the wars in Africa over the resources needed to produce our cell-phones, are causing much more serious human harm than any fashionable augmented-reality game you might play on them. We need to understand that the 'rate-of-change' during WWII was vastly greater and more harmful than anything described or predicted in Future Shock. Stopping the wrong technologies, and promoting the right ones, sounds good, but it can only happen after we make progress in the fight for a real participatory democracy in modern times. That's the priority, and the root of the other problems. No one evaluates the actual utility of technology because the public has too little influence on its development. They are the market, the consumers. They only choose from among those limited and useless things presented to them.

There's something deeper that bothers me about the "future shock" presupposition.  Culture shock is an individual phenomenon. You can only experience so much shock, because you're just a human being, basically identical to people throughout human history. You also have just as much ability to adapt. You might share worry with those around you, and that can amplify your feelings of shock, sometimes, and dampen them, other times. But the way we cope with change is quite individual. I remember that, as a young consulting engineer, working in Japan for a year, I experienced far more culture shock on my return to the US than at any point in Asia. Sometimes new cultures are exciting, old cultures are an albatross -- and this is not because of buildings, or literature, or music, or films -- but because culture is in the human brain, and we experience culture through our interactions with people. Those interactions can be sour, or wonderful, and they change easily, which may or not produce shock in us.

But none of that has changed, throughout human history, because we're the same people. 

We are animals, and have been the same animals for around 50,000 years. The causes of misery are not new. But sometimes we ignore the major factors in our search for obscure, possibly non-existent factors with an academic tone. We don't go around saying "there's a paradigm shift going on among cats: because of youtube videos, domestic cats are experiencing a kind of cultural change that they've never experienced before. Can they cope?" Cats will cognitively cope with the paparazzi paradigm, or not, on a case-by-case basis. Kindness towards them is their more critical concern. The same is true for people.

The second fallacy ... well, I should just call it 'age discrimination'. It's the idea, generally speaking, that people 1,000 years ago were somehow more 'primitive' or more 'stupid' than we are. This is obviously the same kind of discrimination that continues against native peoples today, or the working poor at any time. Thanks in part to Franz Boas, the profession of anthropology took this fallacy to the trash-heap long ago, but it still survives in all kinds of modern bigotry. With nothing but cash-backed corporate-propaganda driving technology discussion today, of course indoctrinated future-enthusiasts will snicker superficially at the past. My favorite example is a NOVA episode where some modern construction engineers concluded that a sketch for a giant wooden crossbow, by Leonardo da Vinci, was fantastically antique, uninformed, and incorrect. Over the hour, we follow the engineers as they learn that they have no real experience with timber mechanical engineering, and Leonardo's sketch was exactly right. Forget whether or not da Vinci was a genius -- why did they believe that they, in their lifetimes, somehow accumulated more skill with wood than a person 500 years ago? 

So, why do I find a connection between that 'modern man' hubris, and the 'shock' notion that people will need 'new tools to cope' with change?

In both cases, pundits have managed not to think of others as real people, like themselves, with full lives, full of difficulties, bursting with energy and ability. This is the nature of bigotry. And, frankly, it's just bad science. Instead, admire the craftsperson of a thousand years ago. Good luck trying to recreate anything they did! And believe that people today can cope with change. But do your best to make sure that everyone treats each other with respect and human kindness. We've a great deal of work ahead of us.